The Tennessee Titans were the only team during the 2011-12 NFL season to miss the playoffs with a winning record. They couldn’t take advantage of a division where every team in the AFC South was plagued with significant injuries. The Indianapolis Colts played the entire season without Peyton Manning. The Jacksonville Jaguars finished the season with more than 30 players on injured reserve. The Houston Texans survived season-ending injuries to arguably their best defensive player (Mario Williams) and their top two quarterbacks (Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart). That doesn’t include stints without Andre Johnson and Arian Foster.
The Titans have plenty of room for improvement. That’s evidenced with their losses to the Jaguars and Colts. That was the difference between no postseason and a potential playoff run. Regardless, that’s in the past. They must make certain that these types of losses don’t keep them out of the playoffs again.
These are some of the top concerns that should be addressed this offseason, primarily through the 2012 NFL Draft.
Key Free Agents:
CB Cortland Finnegan
S Michael Griffin
S Chris Hope
OG Jake Scott
LB Barrett Ruud
S Jordan Babineaux
RB Ahmard Hall
DL Dave Ball
WR Lavelle Hawkins
LB Tim Shaw
No. 5: Chris Johnson?
The Titans rewarded three-time Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson with a six-year, $53.5-million contract extension towards the end of the training camp in 2011. Johnson didn’t respond well as 2011 was his worst season during his four-year career. He had 1,047 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Johnson improved toward the end of the season. While Johnson only had 1,047 yards, he was on pace for 690 yards after seven games. He also had a respectable average of four yards per attempt. There were many issues that could be affecting the running game. Those include Johnson’s absence from training camp, the interior of the offensive line, how much teams can concentrate on Johnson after Kenny Britt went down, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer.
The Titans must decide if Johnson fits into their long-term plans by the fifth day of the NFL’s 2012 league year. That’s when his $8-million base salary becomes fully guaranteed.
No. 4: Interior Offensive Linemen
David Stewart and Michael Roos are a trustworthy tandem on the outside. The Titans surrendered the second-fewest sacks in the NFL with 24. They also surrendered the second-fewest quarterback hits with 55. Those are pretty impressive stats when one considers how reliant the Titans were on their passing game and how immobile Matt Hasselbeck is.
Run-blocking was another story. The New York Giants were the only team who ran for fewer yards per game in 2011. Of course, the Giants are representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI after playoff upsets against the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. There were many issues that could’ve caused the Titans’ sluggish run game.
Jake Scott will become a free agent in 2012. Leroy Harris will also become a free agent in 2013. I’m kind of torn on this issue because they seem so good in pass protection but vulnerable as run-blockers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they searched for a younger replacement for Scott though.
No. 3: Wide Receiver
The Titans evolved into more of a pass-heavy offense with first-year offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. Kenny Britt was playing at a Pro Bowl-level before he tore his ACL and MCL in Week 3. Nate Washington had a career season in which he had 74 receptions for 1,023 yards and seven touchdowns. He had never had a season with more than 687 receiving yards before this. Jared Cook also came within nine yards of breaking the franchise’s all-time receiving record for tight ends. Frank Wycheck (768 yards) has held this record since 1998.
But could the Titans use one more big-play wide receiver? Just imagine Jake Locker surrounded with skill-position players like Britt, Washington, Cook, Johnson and another go-to receiver. Along with Locker’s mobility and an offensive line that doesn’t surrender many sacks, the Titans would have the makings for a top-ten offense. No excuses.
No. 2: Secondary
Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, Chris Hope and Jordan Babineaux are all scheduled to become free agents. Dallas Cowboys assistant secondary coach Brett Maxie was already hired to replace Marcus Robertson and Curtis Fuller as the Titans’ main secondary coach.
The Titans’ secondary appeared to have been one of the strengths of the defense last season. That could change if they lose their top three safeties and their No. 1 cornerback. They’ll still have Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner to replace Finnegan. Regardless, it’ll be tough for the secondary to remain successful unless the front seven can create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
No. 1: Defensive Linemen
The Titans have always prided themselves with strong defensive lines that were anchored by memorable names such as Javon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth and Kevin Carter. The Titans’ philosophy is that they want to pressure the quarterback with their front four linemen and drop their linebackers into pass coverage. That mentality hasn’t changed with defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. Yet, the Titans only had 28 sacks in 16 games. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (23) were the only team with fewer sacks. The Titans were also 24th in run defense
The first question is whether the Titans should re-sign Jason Jones and Dave Ball. Jones is an undersized defensive lineman with approximately 16 sacks in four seasons. While Jones seems to play better on the inside, the Titans already have some up-and-coming interior defensive linemen with Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug. Klug had five sacks in the final five games.
The Titans need a defensive tackle who can be a force against the run. That’s especially important when one considers that Maurice Jones-Drew and Arian Foster are in the AFC South. The Titans also need a defensive end who can rush the passer (a replacement for Jason Babin). They might already have that guy with Derrick Morgan. Morgan, the first-round pick from 2010, has been plagued with injuries throughout his first two seasons.
The Titans have some quality components. They just need that one dominant defensive lineman who can be surrounded with players like Klug and Casey. I feel like that would pay huge dividends in their pass rush. Add another run-clogger and some better depth than Sen’Derrick Marks? The Titans could see a resurgence in their defensive line in 2012.
Albeit 9-7, the Titans have many areas where they can improve upon. They also have the makings of a team that could be a balanced team for years to come. That means that they wouldn’t be over-relying on their offense or defense; they could win games with both.
The key will be how they handle the defense. They need more playmakers on their defensive line. They could use a do-it-all linebacker with Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers. A big-play safety could also relieve any damage that’s done if Finnegan leaves via free agency.
This is a significant offseason for first-year general manager Ruston Webster. Webster will need to put his “Keen eye for talent” to immediate use to get this team into playoff contention in 2012.
Joshua Huffman graduated from Middle Tennessee State University as a marketing major in 2009. He’s been a Middle Tennessee resident from 1986-88 and 2001-present. He lived in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin from 1988-01 and for approximately eight months in 2009-10 while completing a 20-game volunteer position with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. His favorite sports organizations include the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Cubs and Nashville Predators. He also follows the Tennessee Titans, his favorite AFC team.
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